Fresh allegations of irregularities have been raised against Maharashtra’s Women and Child Development (WCD) minister Pankaja Munde over multi-crore contracts for the supply of ration in 1 lakh-odd anganwadis across the state.
Targeting Munde, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Tuesday alleged that these contracts, meant for supply of Take Home Ration (THR) to poor children and pregnant mothers in the anganwadis, had been allotted to contractor and alleged fake women self-help groups (SHGs) and mahila mandals.
Since 2004, the Supreme Court (SC) has repeatedly ruled that the contractors and the food industry players must be kept out of the supplementary nutrition and that these supplies should be handled by local women SHGs and mahila mandals in a decentralised fashion.
Mounting an offensive against Munde, AAP’s Preeti Sharma Menon has further alleged that the minister’s family had close ties with one such awardee – the Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogik Utpadak Sahakari Sanstha Ltd, Latur. The party has claimed that even this Latur firm was a “front for two agro food companies”. While Munde was unavailable for comment, her office has rubbished the allegations as baseless and motivated.
On March 8, 2016, Munde’s department had floated a tender for allotting these contractors across Maharashtra for a five-year period. The total worth of these tenders was Rs 5,440 crore.
But, on July 13 that year, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court stayed this tender notice, contending that certain conditions created a “monopoly for a handful of suppliers”. Some SHGs had approached the court, challenging the restrictive qualifying conditions that had been imposed for participation. The SHGs had contended that the tender was not in consonance with the SC orders of keeping contractors out of the nutrition business.
Munde’s department filed an special leave petition against this verdict in the Supreme Court. On April 19, 2017, the SC, while reserving a final judgment of the tender’s fate, ruled that 18 “mahila mandals” shortlisted in the tendering process should be allowed to function in areas where such contracts have elapsed with the efflux of time. Even during the April 19 SC hearing, Colin Gonsalves, special counsel for the SHGs, had objected, stating, “The shortlisted mahila mandals were a facade of corporate players and there should be an endeavour to lift this veil.” But the court permitted these 18 groups to function on pro-rata basis till it takes a final decision on the tender, after the government agreed to file an affidavit providing the antecedents of each member in these shortlisted mandals.
While the court proceedings continue, AAP on Tuesday upped the ante, alleging there had been rampant irregularities in the shortlisting process. “Eighty-eight per cent of the contract has gone to three firms, including Venkateshwara, the Mahalaxmi Mahila Vikas Grihaudyog Balvikas Bahuudeshiuya Industrial Cooperative Society Ltd. (Nanded) and the Maharashtra Mahila Sahakari Grihaudyog Sanshta Ltd (Dhule). The three firms were indicted, in a report commissioned by the Supreme Court in 2012, as being fronts for private companies. But instead of punishing them, Munde has now brought them back into the business,” alleged Menon.
AAP has demanded Munde’s resignation and an inquiry into her alleged role in the matter. On Tuesday, the party also dragged BJP’s Maharashtra chief Raosaheb Danve in the controversy. While contending that 13 out of the remaining 15 groups, which have been contracted, were dubious entities, Memon alleged that one of them (the Moreshwar Mahila Bachat Gat, Jalna) was promoted by Danve’s close aides. Further, the party has sought an inquiry into the payment made by this SHG to one R D Danve on March 30, 2016. Menon also alleged that the authorised persons of the SHG had business ties with Danve’s son. Danve remained unavailable for comment.
Vinita Singhal, secretary, WCD, said that her department was only following SC directives. “If they (AAP) have some evidence of wrong-doing, they must produce it as evidence before the court. The matter is sub judice,” she said. Menon, meanwhile, claimed her party also plans to intervene in the court matter.
Meanwhile, members of the Jawahar Bachat Gat, which used to supply ration to Mumbai’s anganwadis, were present on the AAP stage on Tuesday. “Our sole source of income has been taken away. We have incurred heavy expenses on the machinery for supplying ration. We even raised loans. How do we repay these now?” asked Nisha Gujar of the SHG. “The government talks of women empowerment, but then gives a backdoor push to male-controlled contracting firms,” she added. AAP has claimed that the tender, in its present form, will throw 300 women SHGs out of business in Maharashtra.